Vanished Wales: The remarkable story of an abandoned army camp which became a safe haven

The remains of the army camp in Tonfanau, Gwynedd Credit: ITV Wales/Vanished Wales

In the village of Tonfanau, in Gwynedd, stand the imposing remains of an army camp.

During World War II it guarded the Welsh coastline against the threat of German invasion.

But 50 years ago, the base performed a very different role - as a safe haven for thousands of people who had been forced to flee their homes by a brutal dictator.

In 1972, the president of Uganda, Idi Amin, issued a chilling message: tens of thousands of Asians must leave the country or face the consequences.

Chandrika Joshi was just 14 at the time and was living in Uganda with her family.

Families fled and sought refuge in the repurposed building in North Wales. Credit: Vanished Wales

She said: “We started hearing of people being beaten up, people being killed, army checkpoints everywhere including where we lived. That time was quite traumatic.”

Chandrika’s family made a desperate escape. They packed what they could and headed for the airport, hoping to catch a flight to Britain.

“There was a lot of anxiety trying to get a taxi to take us to Entebbe and then the checkpoints and feeling scared every time the army personnel stopped us to check all the bags." She added.

"We were feeling scared because we had heard of people being killed, so what’s going to happen to us?”

Thousands of miles away, in Tonfanau, the old army base was being brought back into service.

The cold, empty buildings were quickly repurposed as a refugee resettlement camp.

Chandrika was one of thousands forced to flee Uganda. Credit: ITV Wales News

In October 1972, more than 1,300 men, women and children arrived in North Wales from Uganda. Chandrika was among them.

“I could see the relief on my father’s and mother’s faces - ‘Wow, we made it’”, he said.

The Ugandan families needed food and clothes during a cold Welsh winter.  And the local community rallied round.  

Margretta Young-Jones was one of the hundreds of volunteers, whose small acts of kindness made a big difference.

Margretta Young-Jones volunteered to help some of the refugees when they arrived in Tonfanau. Credit: Vanished Wales

“I went up every night to see them,” she remembers. “One of the Ugandan ladies spoke a little bit of English.

"She was a grandmother and wanted to make me her daughter because there was nothing they could give us for being so kind towards them.

"And that was the greatest honour she could do was adopt me as her daughter. They were such lovely people.”

Gradually, the refugees were offered homes around the UK and started to rebuild their lives. Chandrika’s family settled in South Wales.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...

The army camp at Tonfanau was eventually demolished.  A few ruined buildings are all that remain.

But 50 years ago, it was where lifelong friendships were formed. It became a place of hope, where life could begin again.

You can see more on this story, and many other lost landmarks, in Vanished Wales. Friday 20th May at 7pm on ITV Cymru Wales. You can also catch up with the series here.